It is most likely not true that Jesus was crucified on top of the tomb of Adam. The idea that Golgotha had a twin significance—as the site of Jesus’ death and as Adam’s burial place—stems from an ancient legend fueled by medieval allegory and various theological considerations.
The notion that Jesus was crucified on top of the tomb of Adam crops up fairly early in Christian history. Origen, Chrysostom, and Jerome all make reference to the idea—although, notably, none of those three ever conceded the truth of the tale. Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315—403) wrote that “our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified on Golgotha, nowhere else than where Adam’s body lay buried. For after leaving Paradise, living opposite it for a long time and growing old, Adam later came and died in this place, I mean Jerusalem, and was buried there, on the site of Golgotha. This was probably the way the place, which means ‘Place of a Skull,’ got its name, since the contour of the site bears no resemblance to a skull” (Panarion, Book I, §45, “Against Severians”).
Jewish tradition says that Adam was buried in Hebron, in the Cave of Machpelah, the same place where Abraham and his family were later buried (see Genesis 49:30–31). There are a couple of different Islamic legends that also deal with Adam’s final resting place. According to one tradition related by Ibn Kathir, Noah took Adam’s remains on board the ark with him and later reburied Adam in Jerusalem.
A Christian tradition—the one mentioned by Origen, et al.—places the tomb of Adam in Jerusalem immediately beneath the place where Jesus’ cross stood. In some versions of the story, Adam’s burial site is called the Cave of Treasures. Today in Jerusalem, along the Via Dolorosa, there is a small room near the Stone of Unction before Station 14 called the Chapel of Adam, where Adam was supposedly buried. To the east of the chapel, through a window, what is known as the Golgotha Rock is visible. The rock is cracked (a feature attributed to the earthquake mentioned in Matthew 27:51). According to the story, the crack allowed Jesus’ blood to drip down into Adam’s grave, onto Adam’s skull—and in this way redeeming the first man.
During the Middle Ages, a couple different legends intertwined to form a complicated history of the cross upon which Jesus died. The Legend of the Holy Rood Tree starts after the fall. As Adam lies on his deathbed, his son Seth goes back to Eden hoping to find something to give life to his father. The angel guarding Eden denies Seth entrance, of course, but he does give Seth three seeds from the Tree of Life to bury with Adam. Those seeds grow after Adam’s death, and the wood from those trees is used throughout biblical history for everything from healing the waters of Marah to building a bridge for the Queen of Sheba. Eventually, the same tree is used to make Jesus’ cross. The cross is set up over Adam’s tomb; so, by coincidence, the tree is back to the place where it originally grew.
Many painters of the Renaissance alluded to the legend that Jesus was crucified over the tomb of Adam. Greek Orthodox icons featuring the crucifixion almost always include Adam’s skull situated below Jesus’ cross. Many artists, including Carlo Crivelli, Andrea Solario, Philippe de Champaigne, Rogier van der Weyden, Jacobello Alberegno, Fra Angelico, Hans Wertinger, Marcello Venusti, and Pesellino, used the same imagery, placing a skull at the base of Jesus’ cross. So Adam’s tomb is a common motif in classical paintings of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The legend that Adam’s tomb was beneath the place where Jesus was crucified is just that—a legend—but there are some theological truths that make the legend appealing. Adam is the one who brought death into the world, and Jesus Christ brought life through His death (Romans 5:12, 15–17). In fact, Jesus is called “the last Adam” in 1 Corinthians 15:45. It is the blood of Christ, shed on the cross, that redeems fallen mankind from the curse of Adam. The “old man” has been superseded by the “new man” (Ephesians 4:20–24, NKJV). Because of Christ’s sacrifice, death has been defeated (1 Corinthians 15:55–57).
The exact place of Jesus’ crucifixion is uncertain. The place of Adam’s burial is impossible to ascertain, as the Bible gives no hint. Classical art may depict the bones of Adam as a symbol of death, placing the cross of Christ as a victorious ensign over a defeated foe, but we do not take such artistic flourishes literally. Jesus was very likely not crucified on top of the tomb of Adam.